Growing up Guatemalan in the United States

In 1964, Guatemala was being run by a military junta, violence was a part of every day life, the economy was in shambles, and jobs were scare (Rock, 2011).  It was in this setting that a young man, my future father-in-law, took a chance at a better life for he and his family.  Enticed by rumors of prosperity in the United States, Alex and his brother Rene saved their money to journey to Chicago, leaving their families behind in a search for hope that was borne of desperation.  Alex left his wife Ruth with 20 Guatemalan Quetzal, the equivalent of $20 dollars, and their three children, Vivien, 5, Ingrid, 3, and Marvin, a newborn baby.  What experience lay in store for he and his family?  How would they fare in an unknown country, without family, friends, assets, or even command of the language?  Their experience, like so many immigrants, was one of lifetime poverty, sacrifice, and hard work, for the opportunity that living in the United States promised for their children.

Immigrant Work and Wage Experience in the United States

            When Alex and Rene first came to Chicago, they were able to secure a job at a local Chicago candy factory, where they were responsible for cleaning the candy belts.  While they made less than the minimum wage, they earned enough to bring their families to the United States.  Alex stayed in Chicago for 7 years working the same job for the same low pay, never improving his situation because of constant fear of deportation.  In fact, often immigrants without legal status face similar forms of subjugation, where the fear of deportation forces them to remain in low-wage jobs that don’t meet basic needs (Coutin, 2000)

During their years in Chicago, Alex and Ruth had two more children, Ruth and my wife, Orpha, both born U.S. citizens. Ruth and Orpha, so-called “anchor babies”, allowed Alex and Ruth to apply for and obtain Green Cards, allowing the family to remain in the United States permanently.  Freed from the constant fear of deportation, Alex moved his family to Los Angeles, where his family would better fit, given the large Hispanic population.  In Los Angeles, Alex obtained a job with Pan-American Underwriting Company as a file clerk, making roughly $1000 per month.  Alex worked there for twenty years, without receiving a promotion or raise, before finally being laid off without receiving any retirement benefits.  My wife cries as she recounts how she helped her father to get a job as a delivery driver where she worked, after he had been laid of at Pan-American; she cries in a mix of emotions that include anger, embarrassment, shame, and deep anguish for her father’s wounded pride (Rock, 2011).  Alex’s experience is like so many immigrants in the United States, where uncertain legal status combined with other factors, like language barriers serves to lock them into low-wage jobs that often lack benefits (Massey, Durand, & Malone, 2002).  While living in poverty in the United States was an improvement over the situation in Guatemala, Alex’s status as illegal immigrant and poor command of the English language all but assured a life of poverty in the United States.

Health Care

            My wife is quite capable of handling many basic health care needs all on her own.  Growing up without access to health care due to Alex’s lack of benefits required the use homeopathic treatment techniques handed down from previous generations.  Traditional health care was simply not an option given the high cost of treatment.  Vaccines were provided by the local welfare office, while for dental work and medications, the family would drive down to Mexico where the care was affordable.  My wife recalled that for years, her mother Ruth had severe undiagnosed chest pains and she and the family would regularly light a candle and pray for the pain to go away (Rock, 2011).  Once my wife entered the work force, she paid for a doctor’s visit where her mother was diagnosed with Angina and given a prescription for nitroglycerin, which eased her suffering (Rock, 2011).   Ruth is not alone in her silent suffering, as many immigrants lack access to health care and will not seek health care even when needed (Menjivar, 2002).

Home Ownership

Home ownership is part of the American Dream and yet, for so many in poverty, home ownership can appear to be only a dream.  Alex and Ruth lacked the income to be considered for a mortgage, particularly in such a heavily populated area such as Los Angeles, where average home prices often exceed the national average.  Although, they eventually purchased an 848 square foot home in Tujunga, California, a low-rent suburb of Los Angeles, by combining their resources as a family.  According to my wife, it is part of the Hispanic culture to have many kids so that they can take care of their parents.  In order to purchase the home, Alex and Ruth, along with their oldest daughter Vivien, her husband Mike, and the other two working children, Ingrid and Marvin, all co-signed the bank loan, while Vivien and Mike came up with the down payment.  Pooling resources was the only way the family could hope to own a home given their modest income, a fact that made secondary education a distant dream as well.


            So many lower and working class families often hope for intergenerational class mobility as the way out of poverty, hoping that through education, their children can have a better life than they did (Hodson & Sullivan, 2008).  Unfortunately, economic circumstances force young adults into the workforce at an early age, particularly when cultural forces have a strong influence, as was the case with my wife’s family.  While all of the Cuevas children graduated from high school, most did not seek secondary education.  When I asked my wife why she never considered college, she said that it was never really an option.  Her parents never encouraged college; both because of the high-perceived costs and the need to have the children contribute to the economic well being of the family.  Additionally, she felt that her parents lacked the needed language schools to work cooperatively with teachers on their children’s educational attainment and were ignorant of how to take advantage of financial aid, scholarships, or grants (Rock, 2011).  The Cuevas family missed out on the best opportunity for intergenerational class mobility they had because of language, cultural, and economic barriers.

Cultural Significance of Growing up Guatemalan

            When my wife Orpha was a small child, she used to pretend her name was Kim, that she lived in a two-story house, and her mother had blonde hair.  She grew up trying to hide being Hispanic, instead choosing to blend in with her American friends, rejecting her cultural heritage, because of the shame of their poverty and her embarrassment of their social class (Rock, 2011).  Her parents had also rejected Guatemala because of all it represented; the violence, extreme poverty, repressive regimes, all they had chosen to leave behind, often telling people they were Puerto Rican.   In many ways, the shared experience as United States has forever marked the Cuevas family, making them both quintessential Americans and yet wholly unique.


            The experiences of the Cuevas family are similar to the experiences of so many other Hispanic immigrants to the United States, whose act of immigration and ethnic background confer upon them a lower class than most Americans, due to the economic hardships associated with immigration, questionable legal status, language barriers and other factors. Many have difficulty improving their social class, lacking even intergenerational class mobility because of pervasive economic and cultural barriers that prevent that attainment of secondary education.  In many ways, this paper has been harder for my wife that it has for me.  She softly weeps as she tells me that not until adulthood, did she realize how proud she was of her parents, for their bravery at risking everything for a chance at a better life and for their years of sacrifice to make a better life reality for their family (Rock, 2011).   I try to comfort her, but know that my words will be inadequate, when compared with the experiences of growing up Guatemalan in the United States.




Coutin, S. (2000). Legalizing moves: Salvadoran immigrant’s struggle for U.S. residency. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hodson, R., & Sullivan, T. A. (2008). The social organization of work (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Massey, D. S., Durand, J., & Malone, N. J. (2002). Beyond smoke and mirrors: Mexican immigration in an era of economic integration. New York: Russel Sage Foundation.

Menjivar, C. (2002). The ties that heal: Guatemalan immigrant women’s networks and medical treatment. International Migration Review, 36(2), 437-466.

Rock, O. (2011, Juy 30, 2011). [Personal Communication].




Immigration lack of debate

So I am more than a little annoyed at my classmates.   In my SOC310 course, Race, Gender, and Ethnic Relations in the U.S., we recently had a board discussion on the history of immigrants in America within the context of current experiences.  I was a little late to start, and found upon joining the discussion a few pervasive myths about immigrants.  First, the entire debate centered on Hispanics, which given the SB 1070, perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, but the immigration issue is broader than that.  Second, my classmates had nearly uniform perceptions of Hispanic immigrants, namely that they cost U.S. taxpayers a lot of money because they use all of our services (Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Welfare, Social Security, etc.), they don’t pay taxes, they are criminals, and they don’t know English.  Lastly, rarely did my classmates offer citations and if they did, they were peer-reviewed, unbiased citations.

I found myself wondering a few things:

A)  Do people really believe all of the garbage in the airwaves?

B)  Does nobody question motives or check facts?

C)  Where was my professor?

The other thing that bothered me is that when I challenged class assumptions, nobody responded.  Grrrr.

Outlined below is my (perhaps too emotional) response to the prompt:

It is impossible to ignore the issue of immigration if one is to understand race/ethnic, class and gender dynamics. Discuss history of immigrants in America within the context of our current experiences.

Be sure to cite appropriate, credible sources to support your discussion.

Patrick Rock was a young boy when he traveled to the new world with parents and brothers, fleeing Cladybeg, Ireland, in County Armagh, for the promise of land and a better life.  Landing in Baltimore, the Rock’s found an environment hostile to the Scotts-Irish family, with little food, shelter, nor free land.  The Rock’s moved inland, eventually finding their way into Kentucky, Ohio and later Indiana.  Like many immigrants at the time, Patrick quickly settled in to his adopted country and defended her interests in the Revolutionary War.  Patrick’s story is much like the story of many immigrants that seek a new life in the U.S. today.

They come because the conditions in their home countries are deplorable and many choose to take enormous risks to build a better life for they and their families.  In an earlier post, I described the journey made by Alex Cuevas, my father-in-law, which is remarkably similar to story of my Great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Patrick.   When the similarities are viewed in this context, it is clear that most overriding difference is time.  Patrick, might be viewed as a settler, a colonist, a founder of the nation, because his immigration is distant.  Alex, on the other hand, might be viewed as a freeloader, an illegal immigrant that mooched of the American system, using services meant for Americans and not paying taxes, probably committing crimes to boot.  However, future pace to 20 years from now, when Alex’s grandchildren are adults, or even 100 years from now, how might Alex’s story be perceived differently?

Immigrants have come as colonists, settlers, slaves, indentured servants, both legal and illegally (Hodson & Sullivan, 2008).   Most come to America because of market forces (Hanson, 2007).  In short, there are jobs here that represent an opportunity that immigrants do not perceive in their countries of origin.  Immigrants often occupy lower social classes due to a variety of factors including liminal legality (Menjivar, 2006), language barriers, racial discrimination and/or prejudice (Fiske-Rusciano, 2009), and employment in marginal jobs (Hodson & Sullivan, 2008Menjivar, 2006).  Immigrants, including Jews, Irish, Italians, Latinos, African-Americans, and Asians have historically been discriminated against based on their dissimilarity to the dominant class of white Europeans (Fiske-Rusciano, 2009).

Immigrants in the United States have a long history of being used as scapegoats for U.S. economic woes (Sothern Poverty Law Center, 1994).  The blame game has been used to fuel nativist movements and create restrictive policies, resulting in penalties for certain racially identifiable groups (U.S. Commission On Civil Rights, 1980).  There are a number of specific, historical examples of immigrant groups being blamed for U.S. economic woes.   The poor economy in the 1870s was blamed on immigrants that were accused of taking jobs meant for Americans and driving down wages (U.S. Commission On Civil Rights, 1980); while the Mexican Repatriation Campaign, which “repatriated” more than 500,000 persons to Mexico, many of whom from U.S. citizens, was “spurred by the economic distress of the Great Depression” (U.S. Commission On Civil Rights, 1980, p. 185).

So I suppose that given the dire economic conditions in the U.S. today, that we shouldn’t be surprised that illegal immigrants are being blamed for taking American jobs, using up all of our services, costing the U.S. $113B annually, not paying taxes, raising crime levels and being a general burden on the backs of hard-working Americans.  Of course, there is some evidence that gets in the way of the blame game.

  • “For the U.S. economy, immigration appears to be more or less a wash” (Hanson, 2007)
  • Illegal immigrants pay a significant amount of taxes and cannot receive the benefits.  For examples, as of 2005, the Social Security Administration’s Earnings Suspense File had grown to $520 Billion dollars and is growing at more than $60B a year (O’Carroll, 2006).  The ESF is a result of unmatched SSNs and the Social Security Administration believes that the unmatched SSNs are largely the resulted of undocumented workers (O’Carroll, 2006). Illegal immigrants cannot collect Social Security or Medicare, our two largest, means-tested, programs.
  • There is evidence that indicates that Hispanic illegal immigrants account for less crime than U.S. citizens (Hagan & Palloni, 1999)
  • The $113B annual cost of illegal immigration to taxpayers was developed in a report by FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a powerful lobbying group whose founders and early funding sources include overt racists and proponents of eugenics (The Pioneer Fund, 2011Zeskind, 2005).

So despite evidence to the contrary, blaming immigrants for the woes of our country is an old, familiar pattern, where politicians can divert our attention from the real reasons for our problems, and instead scapegoat minorities that aren’t able to protect themselves from the “tyranny of the majority” (Tocqueville, Reeve, & Spencer, 1839).  We have a $14 trillion dollar deficit, two wars, 9.4% unemployment, and a double-dip recession and the Wizard of Oz is telling us to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”(Fleming et al., 1939), instead telling us that illegal immigrants caused these problems.   Unfortunately, so many believe the rhetoric, and consequently, despite my family’s long and storied history in this country, my children will suffer continued prejudice and discrimination, simply because they are growing up Latino in a bad economy.


Fiske-Rusciano, R. (2009). Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States (5th ed.). Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Fleming, V., LeRoy, M., Langley, N., Ryerson, F., Woolf, E. A., Stothart, H., . . . Turner Entertainment Co. Collection (Library of Congress). (1939). The Wizard of Oz (pp. 1 videodisc of 1 (laser) (ca. 102 min.)). United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  MGM/CBS Home Video

Hagan, J., & Palloni, A. (1999). Sociological criminology and the mythology of Hispanic immigration and crime. Social Problems, 46(4), 617-632.

Hanson, G. H. (2007). The economic logic of illegal immigration. Council on Foreign Relations, 26(April 2007), 1-52.

Hodson, R., & Sullivan, T. A. (2008). The social organization of work (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Menjivar, C. (2006). Liminal legality: Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants’ lives in the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 111(4), 999-1037.

O’Carroll, P., Jr. (2006). Statement for the record: Administrative challenges facing the Social Security Administration.  Washington DC: U.S. Senate

Committee on Finance Retrieved from

Southern Poverty Law Center. (1994). Anti-immigration violence rages nationwide. In R. Fiske-Rusciano (Ed.), Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States (5th ed.). Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

The Pioneer Fund. (2011). The Founders  Retrieved August 10, 2011, from

Tocqueville, A. d., Reeve, H., & Spencer, J. C. (1839). Democracy in America (3rd American ed.). New York: G. Adlard.

U.S. Commission On Civil Rights. (1980). Historical dimiscrimination in the immigration laws. In R. Fiske-Rusciano (Ed.), Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States (5th ed.). Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Zeskind, L. (2005, October 23, 2005). The new nativism. The American Prospect  Retrieved August 10, 2011, from